Fracking Friction - 3.6.2011
[ASSURAS] Natural gas -- some say it's the fuel of the future. But at what cost? There's growing concern about how we get the gas deep from within the ground through the process known as hydraulic fracturing. Is it contaminating our water and our air with dangerous chemicals and radioactivity?
[WOMAN] We do not believe our water is safe.
[ASSURAS] New investigations and demands for more government oversight, but others say there's no need to worry. We'll talk to scientists and experts to determine if we're drilling into danger. Congress is looking for answers, too. We'll hear from two congressmen with very different views. Drilling for natural gas -- is it safe? This is "energyNOW!"
Hello, I'm Thalia Assuras. Welcome to "energyNOW!", a weekly look at America's energy challenges and what we're doing about them. Now, one of the possible solutions is natural gas. It's seen as a way to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. And many environmentalists point out that burning natural gas emits less carbon than coal.
The U.S. Department of Energy says there could be enough gas embedded deep within shale rock across this country to supply the nation for 100 years. In his State of the Union speech, President Obama said, natural gas should be a part of the country's clean energy future. But the method used to get it out of the earth, called hydraulic fracturing, continues to be a great source of concern. Mainly, is it poisoning our drinking water?
A months' long investigation by The New York Times reveals that Americans may be paying to get that gas with their health. The Environmental Protection Agency is studying hydraulic fracturing's potential effects on water, but according to the Times, there is a great lack of oversight. After poring over public records and government reports, the Times unearthed alarming problems and sparked a lot of questions.
This is an important issue, vital to our energy future, so we're devoting the entire broadcast to it this week, and in this "energyNOW!" Spotlight, we drill down on fracking. We need the energy, but at what cost?
[WOMAN] My concern is the poisoning of our water and the lack of regulation.
[MAN] People that have lost water, people have lost cattle.
[ASSURAS] Hydraulic fracturing. Residents at this EPA hearing in Pennsylvania say it can be toxic.
[MAN] They are poisoning the state we love. Yes, it is worth dying for, but not from a glass of water.
[ASSURAS] Families blaming natural gas drilling for illnesses. An Oscar-nominated documentary, "Gasland," showing gas leaking right into people's homes.
[MAN] They can come out here and do whatever they want to.
[ASSURAS] And now the investigation by The New York Times, all raising the question, is our drive for a domestic energy source putting the public at risk?
[CROWD] It's our water, it's our right!
[ASSURAS] Yes, said hundreds of protesters last fall near Pittsburgh, adding to the mounting concern about hydraulic fracturing. It's a process where a drill goes down thousands of feet and turns horizontally. Cement seals the well. A perforating gun creates explosions that pierce into the shale rock where the gas is trapped. Then, millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, is pumped down to widen the fractures, and gas is released. But something else rises to the surface with the gas. It's called flowback water, and what's in it is raising concerns over the safety of drinking water.
[IAN URBINA] Right now, regulators are not keeping pace.
[ASSURAS] In his investigation, New York Times reporter Ian Urbina uncovered a cache of government documents showing the dangers from hydraulic fracturing to the environment and people's health are greater than previously thought.
What was the most surprising thing you found out?
[URBINA] There were two. One was, some of the levels of radioactivity that were showing up in the wastewater. They were much higher than I expected. And number two was the lack of monitoring, especially as you look at the drinking water intake systems.
[ASSURAS] Also among Urbina's findings -- for decades, EPA studies have been repeatedly narrowed in scope and important findings have been removed, "nor has wastewater recycling eliminated environmental and health risks."
[MAN] We dilute it the best we can. We remove what we can, but for the most part, those products are still present.
[ASSURAS] There's growing concern in Congress, too. Representatives Ed Markey and Rush Holt have now sent letters to the EPA and the Interior Department. They're asking the EPA whether a congressionally mandated study intentionally excluded investigating radioactivity in fracking wastewater. And they are asking the Interior Department, among other things, if the threat of radioactive materials has been evaluated.
[JOSH FOX] I found every single drilling area that I went to was contaminated; the water was contaminated.
[Sniffs] Oh, man!
[ASSURAS] "Gasland" director Josh Fox and actor activist Mark Ruffalo have been calling for a moratorium on all fracking until stricter regulations are in place.
[RUFFALO] There's no other industry in all of America that can put chemicals in the ground and not disclose what those chemicals are.
[ASSURAS] Several companies have made voluntary disclosures of some of those fracturing chemicals after getting pressure from Congress and the EPA. But not everyone agrees there's a direct link between fracking and contaminated water.
[MAN] It's very difficult, honestly, to do the kind of toxicological studies necessary to pinpoint, "Oh, this symptom is from that chemical," and make that direct link.
[ASSURAS] And the industry stands by its practice.
[MAN] I think you have to look at a lot of them that have been investigated by the state regulators, in those states where they have occurred, and those state regulators have said that the complaint that people are raising is not related to the development of the natural gas operations in and around their water source.
[ASSURAS] This is an industry, as you said yourself, that is expanding. If there's more monitoring, more regulating, how does that throw, or does it throw a fly in the ointment when it comes to the country dealing with its energy problems?
[URBINA] I think that the only way we can embrace, as a country, natural gas is safely. And, if there's not sufficient regulation of it, then eventually that's going to catch up with the boom and we're going to take a step backwards.
[ASSURAS] Water is our most basic need, so, of course, people get scared when that water turns toxic. But is fracking really a cause of contamination? Later in the broadcast, we'll hear from two congressmen, very involved with this issue with very different perspectives.
But joining me first for theMIX to talk about fracking and potential contamination of our water is Dave Yoxtheimer, a hydrologist with the Penn State Marcellus Center. He investigates water treatment and quality issues. John Quigley is the former Pennsylvania Secretary of Conservation and Natural Resources. He issued leases to gas companies. Travis Windle is the spokesperson for the Marcellus Shale Coalition. And joining us from Berkeley, California, Peter Gleick, the president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, which looks at the connections between water and human health.
Now, before we begin, a note about "energyNOW!" Our initial support comes from the American Clean Skies Foundation, which is funded, in part, by Chesapeake Energy, a major player in the shale gas business. We are editorially independent. Neither the foundation nor its backers control what we say and do on this program. We strive to report on energy and the environment accurately and fairly, with no agenda, other than informing the public, you, about critical issues that affect us all.
So, gentlemen, all, thank you very much for joining us. Let's get right into the discussion. I'm going to begin with you, John Quigley, because under your watch, Pennsylvania really expanded the shale gas business. Did the state drop the ball on issues of health/safety?
[QUIGLEY] No, I don't think we did. I think in the last two years, especially, under Governor Rendell, the state put in place, probably, the most aggressive regulatory framework of any state in the country around Marcellus drilling. The problem is the scale and the pace at which the industry has moved into Pennsylvania. Frankly, in my view, the state has been playing catch-up.
[ASSURAS] But it appears that there are contaminants, including radioactivity, that's getting potentially into drinking water. Let me ask you, then, about the science -- is it?
[YOXTHEIMER] There are relatively high levels of radionuclides; however, this wastewater is treated, and so, maybe the question mark is, how much is actually discharged to the rivers?
[ASSURAS] But isn't the question, are facilities able to treat this water? It goes into water treatment, sewage treatment plants, but those treatment plants aren't necessarily able to deal with the radioactivity.
[YOXTHEIMER] There is some question as to whether the municipal treatment plants can adequately remove the radionuclides, so this is something we need to take a close look at.
[ASSURAS] Let me bring Dr. Gleick in this. Dr. Gleick, do you agree with the science aspects of this, the health aspects of what these gentlemen are saying?
[GLEICK] I think the problem is, a lot of different balls have been dropped here. We're racing ahead with fracking because we want to expand our natural gas production. Burning natural gas is better than burning coal overall, or better than importing oil from the Middle East, but as we've raced ahead, our regulations, our oversight, our monitoring, our enforcement of existing laws have not kept up.
[ASSURAS] Essentially, what's really going on here, is, you're saying, there are lax regulations, and where is the monitoring? Let me just throw some numbers at you. Some 50 million gallons of wastewater is unaccounted for. Some of the wastewater that's coming up is a thousand times the level of radioactivity that should be in drinking water under federal rules.
[WINDLE] What's not reflected in many of these New York Times stories that have surfaced over the past week is that Marcellus Shale producers in Pennsylvania are leading the industry nationwide as it relates to recycling and reuse of that water, so the more we're recycling, the more we're reusing, the less we're discharging overall, and that's an environmental winner, it's good for business, and helps reduce our environmental footprint, which is our ultimate goal.
[ASSURAS] Let me ask you, John Quigley, about recycling, because the number's, I understand, 65% now recycling, but at the time of these investigations, not even half of the water was being recycled.
[WINDLE] We've moved quickly. Absolutely. It's breakneck speed.
[QUIGLEY] I think here's the real bottom line, in my opinion, when it comes to public health and this water question. We've got to test. The industry must be held to the highest possible standard. The industry should be expected to recycle 100% of their water across the board, every company, every well. We're not there yet, and that's where all states need to go. And this water needs to be tested both at the discharge point at the treatment facilities and the intake points of water consumption, water processing facilities.
[ASSURAS] We're going to get back at this more with our guests when we come back. And later, two congressmen with very different views on what the government should and shouldn't regulate when it comes to fracking. Can the industry clean itself up? Who is in charge of what's coming out of the ground? We'll be back.
[TEXT ON SCREEN] In 2007 there were 27 wells drilled in the Marcellus Shale. In 2010 there were 1,386. SOURCE: Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
[TEXT ON SCREEN] What if every child was sent on the right path? What if every child stayed in school? Graduated college? Got a job? Gave back to the community. What if every child's potential was fulfilled? What could that start? It could be the start of something BIG. Every time you donate money or time to Big Brothers Big Sisters It makes a big impact On a Little. Start Something™ at BigBrothersBigSisters.org.
[TEXT ON SCREEN] "What are the side effects, doctor?" "When will my test results arrive?"
[GROUP, SINGING] Questions are the answer.
[TEXT ON SCREEN] "How many times have you performed this procedure?"
Get more involved with your health care.
[GROUP, SINGING] Questions are the answer. Yeah-yeah.
[TEXT ON SCREEN] Questions are the answer. Learn what to ask at www.AHRQ.gov.
[ASSURAS] Welcome back to "energyNOW!" We're digging deep into fracking and its potential link to contaminating our drinking water. We are back with Dave Yoxtheimer. He's a hydrogeologist at the Penn State Marcellus Center. John Quigley, the former Pennsylvania Secretary of Conservation and Natural Resources. Travis Windle, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, and from Berkeley, California, joining us, Peter Gleick, the president and the co-founder of the Pacific Institute.
What I'd like to do, gentlemen, is get into what are next steps. This country is still recovering from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In many people's minds, there are some parallels, so, John Quigley, let me begin with you. Should there be some kind of moratorium on, at least, new fracking be put in place?
[QUIGLEY] I'm not convinced that we need a moratorium, but I think the industry immediately must commit to 100% recycling of its wastewater, by a date certain, and I'm not talking years, I'm not talking months, I'm talking weeks. Commit to 100% recycling by a date certain. At the same time, we need to immediately institute testing of water supplies for radioactivity in particular and a commitment to full public disclosure of those results.
[YOXTHEIMER] We do have many companies in Pennsylvania that are reusing nearly 100% of their flowback water. So, we need the rest of the companies to follow the leaders in the industry and also recycle their wastewater as much as possible.
[WINDLE] We've increased the overall amount of reuse and recycle rate tenfold over the past year, and that's going to continue to move forward. And we're getting close to a 100% rate.
[ASSURAS] It's at 65%.
[ASSURAS] 65% is not 100%.
[ASSURAS] 35% of the water remaining somewhere is potentially contaminated. So let me -- okay, go ahead.
[WINDLE] That rate is arguably higher with, over the past six months. You know, you take the 65 over the past year and a half. Well you look at the past 6 months and that rate keeps getting higher and higher, and we're committed to being on it 100%.
[ASSURAS] Dr. Gleick?
[GLEICK] We ought to slow down to the point where the environment is not the victim of this fracking process. We want the natural gas, but we also want a healthy environment and we want to protect public health.
[ASSURAS] But will the industry slow down? This is a lot of money for the industry -- 44,000 jobs were actually created in Pennsylvania.
[ASSURAS] Doubled already?
[WINDLE] Since 2005.
[QUIGLEY] I think some of the industry claims are a little inflated.
[WINDLE] Those are from Penn State experts.
[QUIGLEY] What I will say is, too often, the industry's response to any of these questions has been, "Trust us, we know what we're doing" -- we can't. This is a basic function of government, to protect public health and, I think, the environment, which go hand in hand.
[ASSURAS] But a major part of the investigation by The New York Times is, came up with, who can we trust in this situation? Lax monitoring, lax regulations. The industry being able to monitor and police itself and its own reporting. Who's at fault here?
[GLEICK] The industry has to do a better job, no doubt about it. But our state regulatory agencies and the federal regulatory agencies also have a critically important job to do. This isn't the time to be weakening the EPA, or weakening our state environmental agencies. And yet that's the risk. We need clear oversight of environmental and health protections.
[ASSURAS] How can there be agreement between the environmentalists and the industry?
[WINDLE] Overwhelmingly, fracturing fluids used in the Marcellus are more than 99.5% water and sand.
[ASSURAS] And what's in that .5% number?
[WINDLE] These are common additives. We're talking about an emulsifier to propense bacteria killers -- things that attack bacteria in the well bore. So these are common things you can find --
[ASSURAS] Something we'd drink?
[WINDLE] No, we're not suggesting that. No one suggested that.
[YOXTHEIMER] These are things you can typically find in your garage or under your sink. Would you drink Drano? Absolutely not. But people use it, and it goes down their drain and goes out, ultimately, into a river.
[ASSURAS] Dr. Gleick, just for a second, is there such a thing as safe fracking in your mind?
[GLEICK] The problem is, there are a lot of unknowns here about what's being put into groundwater, whether it's into our groundwater or not or if it's separate from our groundwater, about the wastewater discharge. We don't know enough to say that we're doing it safely. And there are hints that we're not doing it safely.
[ASSURAS] Let me ask the question of each of the gentlemen here.
[WINDLE] In Pennsylvania, we work closely with the Department of Environmental Protection to enhance the current well-casing standards, which ensure that hydrocarbons, natural gas, and the fluids used in fracturing -- made up of 99.5% water and sand -- cannot in any way communicate with freshwater aquifers.
[ASSURAS] I know that we could keep discussing the investigations and these issues over health, but I do want to get to a final question. Dr. Gleick, I'll begin with you, I think, and that is, whether natural gas, do you see it as a key, or the key to solving the energy problems of this country?
[GLEICK] Natural gas, in my opinion, is a transition fuel. Natural gas is much better than coal. It burns more cleanly. It produces far less greenhouse gases. It's better than imported oil, but in the long run, we want to get off of carbon-based fuel.
[ASSURAS] Is it simply a transition fuel till we get to better?
[QUIGLEY] I think it is a transition fuel. I think we need to transition as quickly as possible, but you have to keep in mind some basic facts. Coal sickens and kills people. One out of six women of childbearing age in this country has elevated levels of mercury in her blood because of burning coal, and that retards fetal development. We have thousands of people that die over the space of a decade in southwestern Pennsylvania associated with air pollution resulting from the burning of coal.
[WINDLE] We have a hundred years' supply in the United States of clean-burning natural gas, and it's incumbent upon us as a nation, as a region in Pennsylvania, to leverage that fuel in a way that benefits the nation, makes us stronger economically in the global marketplace.
[YOXTHEIMER] I think we have an opportunity of a lifetime here to really change the way we create energy. We need power; it's just a fact of life.
[ASSURAS] Gentlemen, all, thank you for joining us. Peter Gleick as well in California. Thank you so much.
And coming up next, two lawmakers give their very different views on how to regulate fracking. We talk to Congressman Rush Holt and Congressman Michael Burgess about who's in charge of making sure our water is safe.
[GIRL] Hey, Mom.
[WOMAN] You know, girls, I used to cheer back in my day. Ready, okay! [Drums playing] Go, team!
[GIRL] That was amazing. [Voice echoing]
[GIRL] Mom, that was amazing.
[ANNOUNCER] You don't have to be perfect to be a perfect parent. There are thousands of siblings in foster care who'll take you just as you are.
[TEXT ON SCREEN] AdoptUsKids.org. 1-888-200-4005.
[ASSURAS] Earlier we said that at the rate we're using energy now, shale gas has the potential to supply U.S. gas needs for the next 100 years. Does that mean it will be the biggest piece of the natural gas pie in the future? Well, let's check the "energyNOW!" Reality Meter. Shale gas was a tiny part of the entire natural gas picture just two decades ago -- in fact, it barely existed. Thanks to fracking, it hit 14% in 2009, but let's fast-forward to 2035. By then, the Energy Information Administration says, shale gas will provide almost half of all the natural gas we use.
Natural gas, many say, can and should be the answer to reducing the nation's foreign oil dependence and its carbon pollution. Now, the New York Times' investigation into the environmental risks from fracking has lawmakers asking questions about who's overseeing how we get the gas.
New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt is one of the congressmen leading that charge. But Representative Michael Burgess sees the gas industry as a good neighbor. He represents the Dallas-Fort Worth area, right in the middle of the Barnett Shale, where companies have been fracking for years. Thanks to both of you gentlemen for joining us.
I will start with you, Congressman Burgess, because there's the New York Times exposé. There's the Energy Committee's own investigation about diesel fuel going into fracking sites and demands for more study. Is fracking safe?
[BURGESS] I think what you have to consider is, when I came to Congress in 2003, there were a lot of people who were really concerned that we did not have adequate amounts of natural gas, that it was going to be a problem to create fertilizer chemicals, and we heard it all the time. Now, fast-forward seven years' time, and we have an abundance. So clearly this is an industry that has undergone rapid, rapid change. Now, I will tell you that there are problems and some of the problems stem simply from the fact that people are not convinced that their welfare is being protected.
[ASSURAS] In your state, if I could interrupt, natural gas fracking has, in fact, the natural gas has seeped from fracking sites into underground drinking water in Texas, among five states. What do you tell your constituents?
[BURGESS] I think that's a bit of an overstatement of the problem. There are some concerns down in Parker County, which is just south of where I represent. There was a case that attracted a lot of attention the early part of December, and, actually, this points up some of the tension between the federal regulators and the state regulators.
[ASSURAS] Is EPA the problem? You are asking for more study of fracking by the EPA and you're calling it more robust study. And the question is, has the EPA fallen down on the job?
[HOLT] I'd say, so far EPA has not caught up with the scale of the problem. And, in fact, no one has. I think the drilling is getting ahead of itself. This is the point you were making. It's grown by multiples of a hundred. And yes, it has been used for years. Many energy extractors can say, "We've done this for years without incident." But never on this scale.
[BURGESS] The developers themselves, should they wish to continue this exercise -- and this is what I stressed to the president of Conoco before our committee during the Deepwater Horizon hearings. You guys have to be certain that this is done in the best possible way.
[HOLT] But they're tripping over themselves to do this rapidly.
[BURGESS] I would disagree -- The technological changes that are occurring within the fracking fluid itself -- diesel, it's found, is no longer necessary. There are vegetable oils that can be used.
[HOLT] But as recently as 2009, there were 30 million gallons in more than a dozen states used, and so, yes, okay, if the practice is getting better, that should become the standard immediately.
[BURGESS] I wouldn't disagree with that. But at the same time, the developers are going to be much more facile and agile about this than are either state agencies or federal agencies. And you know, the EPA, there is no more nakedly political organization than the EPA right now. They've declared war on my state in Texas. Their word is worth nothing in my state.
[HOLT] Well, I don't accept either of those points, but the point is that, I mean, drinking water should be kept safe. It's one of the things that, for nearly a century, America, the United States of America, stood out in all the world as the country where you could turn on the tap and be assured that you had drinkable, in fact, very high standard water. You know, we're getting away from that.
[BURGESS] I disagree about that. Every one of those needs to be completely investigated, whether it's the EPA or state agencies that do that, or the drillers themselves, it has to be done in a transparent -- the public has a right to know.
[ASSURAS] Finding out what the problem is is one thing. Acting immediately when there are concerns about people's health, safety is another thing.
[HOLT] Just as we saw in the Gulf drilling, counting on the companies to police themselves -- even the whole industry to police itself -- isn't good enough. You know, a lot of the oil industry was saying, "BP, you know, clean up your act here, BP." But they didn't have any real authority to do it. There is a place for government regulation here. And I'm not saying that either one is right by itself, but we've got to have it, and we've got to have it soon, because this industry is exploding.
[BURGESS] Less than six months after the BP well was controlled, you have the large companies in the Gulf -- Exxon, Conoco, Chevron -- who have now instituted the rapid response --
[HOLT] Yeah, now. That's not a very strong argument, Michael.
[BURGESS] No, they have changed as conditions changed.
[HOLT] No, as the public exposure changed.
[BURGESS] When the president recommended an increase in deepwater drilling, this problem had never occurred before. None of us knew about problems with cementing and casing. We all became junior petroleum engineers in a very short period of time.
[HOLT] Much of that was known; it just wasn't enforced.
[BURGESS] But look how quickly industry has responded. Where is your Department of Interior? Where is the Department of Interior with assuring that this will not happen again?
[HOLT] I've written to the secretary.
[BURGESS] Great. Stack of letters.
[HOLT] There should be air standards.
[BURGESS] We can push those letters down the hole the next time.
[ASSURAS] One last question -- you both say that there is significant concern here; there are problems. Is there a possibility of political compromise in this?
[BURGESS] Absolutely. Again, it's the public does not have the satisfaction that their safety is being protected. It is incumbent upon the drillers, if they want to develop the product, they have a role to play.
[ASSURAS] Drillers and government?
[BURGESS] Of course, government has a role to play. I would argue that...
[HOLT] You better call it, Thalia, while we're this close.
[BURGESS] The state agencies are much more agile, and the geology is different in my area than his area, so why should the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Railroad Commission, not be the primary ones who are regulating this activity in my state? Remember, my state used to be its own country.
[HOLT] That's one of the points -- you know, in the United States, there is so much mobility from state to state. It has been the standard --
[BURGESS] But the geology is not that mobile.
[HOLT] That in the United States, clean air, clean water, and unpolluted land should be the norm in every state and there should be standards across the country to see that that is the case.
[ASSURAS] And we will be watching the debate between you and others in Congress.
[BURGESS] But the geology is different in Texas, Colorado, and Pennsylvania, vastly different...
[HOLT] But the standards shouldn't be.
[BURGESS] The states should have the primary responsibility for seeing those standards are enforced.
[ASSURAS] And we'll be watching that debate. Gentlemen, thanks to both of you for joining us.
And that's it for this week's "energyNOW!" And again a note about the show. Our initial support comes from the American Clean Skies Foundation, which is funded in part by Chesapeake Energy, a major player in the shale gas business. We are editorially independent. Neither the foundation nor its backers control what we say and do on this program. We strive to report on energy and the environment accurately and fairly, with no agenda other than informing the public, you, about critical issues that affect us all.
We welcome your feedback on how well we're carrying out this mission. Check out our news standards and editorial policies which completely with guidelines set out by the Society of Professional Journalists in the "about" section at energyNOW.com. And you can write to us at [email protected]. You can also friend us on Facebook -- search energyNOWnews. Join our discussion pages or follow us on Twitter at energyNOWnews. See you next week.
energyNOW! Spotlight: Fracking controversy
Fracking is unlocking vast new amounts of domestic energy -- and raising troubling questions about how industry and government have handled possible drinking water contamination.Watch now ...
Congressmen Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Michael Burgess (R-TX) debate the government’s role in regulating shale gas development, water safety and environmental health.Watch now ...
Our panel takes a look at Pennsylvania, the national capital of hydraulic fracturing. The state has experienced a huge economic boom and potentially huge environmental contamination.Watch now ...
Last Wednesday was a big milestone for people who care about public health and a livable climate. Two utilities announced the planned closure of nine coal plants.Read more ...
Today, in the UK, the world's oldest nuclear power plant shut down.Read more ...
The U.S. led the world in clean energy investment in 2011, but China retained the top spot in the latest Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Index from Ernst & Young.Read more ...